The Roundup for April 1-30, 2020 Edition

(Unhoused by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


Inspiring Quotation

When you give something, you’re in much greater control. But when you receive something, you’re so vulnerable.

I think the greatest gift you can ever give is an honest receiving of what a person has to offer.
– Fred Rogers

Great Photography Shots

Some of the photos for the 2020 All About Photos Awards are just terrific.

“Jump of the wildebeest” © Nicole Cambre. 5th Place, All About Photo Awards.
“Beyond the wall” © Francesco Pace Rizzi. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards
“The Wallace’s Flying Frog” © Chin Leong Teo. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards
“Step by Step” © Mustafa AbdulHadi. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards
Untitled © Yoni Blau. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards
Woman Mursi © Svetlin Yosifov. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards

Music I’m Digging

My April best-of playlist features some classic alternative and a lot of not-so-new rap and R&B. I guess this is the first full playlist I’ve created purely when in self-isolation?

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Lawfare-Jim Baker in FISA Errors // Baker previously was responsible for, in part, reviewing the FISA applications put before the FISC. Recently, the DOJ IG found that 29 of 29 applications they reviewed had errors, including a seeming failure to document or prove the facts set out in the applications. Baker assessed the legal implications as well as the normative implications of the deficits, and the need to develop stronger managerial control over all future applications.
  • CBC Ideas—The Shakespeare Conspiracy // Using Shakespeare as a kind of distancing tool—he’s long dead and so unlikely to enliven contemporary political passions—Paul Budra explores how different scholars and public intellectuals have asserted who Shakespeare ’really was’ and the rationales behind such assertions. In an era where the West is increasingly concerned about the rise of conspiracies this espisode provides a range of productive tools to assess and critique new and emerging conspiracies.
  • NPR throughline—Buzzkill // Mosquitos are, without a doubt, responsible for more human deaths than anything else on earth. This superb short podcast goes through how mosquitos have been essential to empire, warfare, and changes to humans’ genetic makeup.

Good Reads

  • The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic // Anderson has done a spectacular job showcasing the beautiful humanity of Weird Al. In tracing his origin story, and explaining the care and time Al puts into his work, and the love he has for his fans, you really appreciate just how lovely a man he is. If anyone is a Tom Hanks for the geeks, it may end up being Weird Al.
  • There Is a Racial Divide in Speech-Recognition Systems, Researchers Say // It’s as though having engineers of particular ethnicities, building products that work for them, while also lacking employees of other ethnicities, has implications for developing technology. And the same is true of when developers do not include people with diverse socio-legal or socio-economic backgrounds.
  • The chemistry of cold-brew coffee is so hot right now // God bless the coffee-obsessed scientists who’ve taken a deep dive into the way that coffee beans respond to different extraction methods, as well as provide their own cold brew recipes. I can’t wait to see what research percolates out of this lab going forward!
  • What’s the Deal With False Burrs? // Having only recently managed to properly clean my home grinder, I was curious to learn a bit more about the differences in burr grinders. While I’m satisfied with my current grinder I can predict—based in owning a ‘faux’ burr grinder—that a Baratza Encore or Virtuoso is in my near future.
  • LIDAR: Peek Into The Future With iPad Pro // The recent release of the newest iPad Pro iteration has been met with a lot of yawns by reviewers. That makes a lot of sense, given the combination of the ongoing crisis and relatively minimal changes over the 2018 iPad Pro. The only really major new thing is a LIDAR system that is now part of the camera bump, but no mainstream reviewers have really assessed its capabilities. Fortunately the folks from Halide—a smartphone camera company—have dug into what LIDAR brings (and doesn’t bring) to the floor. Their review is helpful and, also, raises the question of whether professionals who do modelling should be consulted on the utility of these kinds of features, just as photographers—not gadget reviewers—should be asked deep and probing questions about the cameras that are integrated into smart devices these days.
  • The Mister Rogers No One Saw // Fred Rogers has had a number of films made about him and his life, but this essay by Jeanne Marie Laskas is different because it is so deeply personal about the relationships Fred had with those around him, and with the author. He inhabited a world that was just a little bit different than our own; his creativity was drawn from this place. But it was also a creativity linked with a deep ethic of work, where he focused on ensuring that his art was as perfect as possible. And left unstated in the article is one of the real testaments to his work: he would re- edit episodes, years after they had first been produced, when he found there were elements he was unhappy with or that no longer adequately represented what he had learned was a more right way of thinking about things. Also left unwritten in this piece was Fred’s belief that children we resilient and could be taught about the world; his shows dealt with issues like the Vietnam war and nuclear war in ways that were approachable to children who deserved to be involved in understanding their world, and always knowing they weren’t alone in it, and that it was perfectly ok to have feelings about it.
  • New York and Boston Pigeons Don’t Mix // The sheer size of pigeon populations–they extent across vast swathes of urbanized (and road connected) land–is pretty amazing. But, equally interesting, is how rural environments seem to, effectively, segregate populations from one another. It’s just another example of how genetically diverse groups can exist all around us, without our ever realizing the distinctiveness.

Cool Things

  • I Miss the Office // If you want office sounds for your work at home, then this site has you covered. (Also, if this is what you’re missing you’re kinda weird!)
  • How to Make Whipped Coffee // I am very curious to try and make this at some point in the future!
  • The Slow Fade of City Life // When the last two images are accurate, you know it’s a lot easier to get through the lack of the city.
  • Campari and Orange Juice // I have to say, this is my new favourite brunch drink. It tastes almost like grapefruit juice, though the real secret—not in this recipe—is to aerate the Campari and OJ in a blender before mixing in a cocktail shaker. The aeration really opens up the Campari and gives the whole drink a level of creaminess it otherwise wouldn’t have.
Quote

… surely there is no automatic, positive link between knowledge and power, especially if that means power in a social or political sense. At times knowledge brings merely an enlightened impotence or paralysis. One may know exactly what to do but lack the wherewithal to act. Of the many conditions that affect the phenomenon of power, knowledge is but one and by no means the most important.

  • Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology
Link

Transparency Follows After Trust Is Lost

Via Wired:

Speaking at Davos, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi pointed out that consumers face a challenge in trying to understand tech’s influence in the age of big data. He called this an “information asymmetry.” In his previous job, as CEO of Expedia, Khosrowshahi said, customers were shown a tropical island while they waited for their purchase page to show up. As a test, engineers replaced the placid image with a stressful one that showed a person missing a train. Purchases shot up. The company subbed in an even more stressful image of a person looking at a non-working credit card, and purchases rose again. One enterprising engineer decided to use image of a cobra snake. Purchases went higher.

What’s good for a business isn’t always good for that businesses’ users. Yet Khosrowshahi stopped testing because he decided the experiment wasn’t in line with the Expedia’s values. “A company starts having so much data and information about the user that if you describe it as a fight, it’s just not a fair fight,” said Khosrowshahi.

The tech industry often responds to these concerns with a promise to be more transparent—to better show how its products and services are created and how they impact us. But transparency, explained Rachel Botsman in the same Davos conversation, is not synonymous with trust. A visiting professor at the University of Oxford’s Said School, Botsman authored a book on technology and trust entitled “Who Can You Trust?” “You’ve actually given up on trust if you need for things to be transparent,” she said. “We need to trust the intention of these companies.”

I think that it’s how little design flourishes are used to imperceptibly influence consumers that should be used to justify more intensive ethics and legal education to designers and engineers. Engineers of physical structures belong to formal associations that can evaluate the appropriateness of their members’ creations and conduct. Maybe it’s time for equivalent professional networks to be build for the engineers and developers who are building the current era’s equivalents to bridges, roads, and motor vehicles.

Link

The London Tube Is Tracking Riders with Their Phones

From Wired:

An agency like TfL could also use uber-accurate tracking data to send out real-time service updates. “If no passengers are using a particular stairway, it could alert TfL that there’s something wrong with the stairway—a missing step or a scary person,” Kaufman says. (Send emergency services stat.)

The Underground won’t exactly know what it can do with this data until it starts crunching the numbers. That will take a few months. Meanwhile, TfL has set about quelling a mini-privacy panic—if riders don’t want to share data with the agency, Sager Weinstein recommends shutting off your mobile device’s Wi-Fi.

So, on the one hand, they’ll apply norms and biases to ascertain why their data ‘says’ certain things. But to draw these conclusion the London transit authority will collect information from customers and the only way to disable this collection is to reduce the functionality of your device when you’re in a public space. Sounds like a recipe for great consensual collection of data and subsequent data ‘analysis’.

Link

Turkey coup plotters’ use of ‘amateur’ app helped unveil their network

The Guardian:

A senior Turkish official said Turkish intelligence cracked the app earlier this year and was able to use it to trace tens of thousands of members of a religious movement the government blames for last month’s failed coup.

Members of the group stopped using the app several months ago after realising it had been compromised, but it still made it easier to swiftly purge tens of thousands of teachers, police, soldiers and justice officials in the wake of the coup.

Starting in May 2015, Turkey’s intelligence agency was able to identify close to 40,000 undercover Gülenist operatives, including 600 ranking military personnel, by mapping connections between ByLock users, the Turkish official said.

However, the Turkish official said that while ByLock helped the intelligence agency identify Gülen’s wider network, it was not used for planning the coup itself. Once Gülen network members realised ByLock had been compromised they stopped using it, the official said.

But intelligence services are policing agencies are still ‘Going Dark’…

Link

Why wearable fitness trackers offer no weight-loss ‘advantage’

CBC:

Both groups had significant improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity and diet, with no significant difference between groups, they said.

In total, 75 per cent of participants completed the study.

Estimated average weights for the group wearing trackers were 212 pounds at study entry and 205 pounds at 24 months, resulting in an average weight loss of about 7.7 pounds.

In comparison, those in the website group started out at 210 pounds when the study began and weighed in at 197 pounds at 24 months, for an average loss of 13 pounds.

Still, Jakicic said in an email: “We should not send the message that these wearable technologies do not help with weight loss — there were some in our study for whom it made a difference.

I would argue that the ‘advantage’ that the trackers offer is to motivate people who otherwise might be less mindful on a regular basis to increase their daily activity. The headline of the article directly contradicts the point made by the study’s author: that the message should not be that wearables do not help with weight loss.

Perhaps one of the broader issues is that weight loss is predominantly associated with dietary changes. Fitness trackers focus on activity. As such, meeting fitness tracker goals (absent food monitoring) can lead to reduced weight losses as compared to those engaged in more comprehensive health and diet tracking.

Link

How foreign governments spy using PowerPoint and Twitter

How foreign governments spy using PowerPoint and Twitter:

Right now, there are probably many journalists, human rights organizations and democracy activists walking around oblivious to the invisible tracking that is going on behind their backs. It’s time to wake up to the silent epidemic of targeted digital attacks on civil society and do something about it.

The protections built into our technologies are flimsy and routinely subverted. The merits of a ‘first to market’ ethos that predominates technical innovation must be contrasted, and weighed, against the mortal risk these same technologies pose to some users.

Link

Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck?

Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck?:

Many hard problems require you to step back and consider whether you’re solving the right problem. If your solution only mitigates the symptoms of a deeper problem, you may be calcifying that problem and making it harder to change.

Ethan’s essay is a long response to Shane Snow’s proposals for prison reform. In short, Snow is aiming to adjust conditions inside of prisons without considering whether there is a broader series of social issues that are responsible for actually leading to incarcaration. And, worse, he’s making his proposals without lived experiences of what prison itself is like.

The crux of Ethan’s argument, really, doesn’t concern the kinds of prison reform which are(n’t) appropriate so much as this: is it appropriate for a given person, or group, to solve the problem(s) in the first place? Are they capable of even identifying what are the problem(s)?

I think that this kind of attitude – of humbleness and appreciation for one’s limited perspective on the world – is something that should be taken up by more technologists, policy makers, and law makers. Too often we assume we know how to help without even knowing whether, and if so why and under what conditions, help is needed in the first place.

Link

Encryption: Officials seek ‘backdoor’ entry points; critics decry government overreach

Encryption: Officials seek ‘backdoor’ entry points; critics decry government overreach:

In other words, University of Toronto’s Chris Parsons wrote on Twitter, “you either support backdoors, or you support the murderers and child abuser.”

“I think that each company will have to evaluate the corporate risks associated with implementing any backdoors,” Mr. Parsons, a postdoctoral fellow who studies privacy and security at Citizen Lab, a division of the university’s Munk School of Global Affairs, told The Washington Times this week.

“While satisfying U.S. and U.K. government authorities might (temporarily) relieve pressure, the companies would suffer tremendous international criticism and suspicion were they to undermine the security of their products,” he continued, adding that a likely plummet in profits, if nothing else, “will buttress corporate principles and force companies (on their shareholders’ behalfs) to maintain their current security stances.”

Neither Google nor Apple has publicly responded yet to this week’s op-ed, but Mr. Parsons in Toronto says that it’s so far been promising to hear that law enforcement can’t crack a type of encryption that now comes standard.

“To a certain degree, it is reassuring that consumer-level encryption is sufficiently robust that even state authorities find it challenging to break. People and businesses entrust highly sensitive information and capabilities to their devices, and so this affirmation confirms that criminals who steal devices will have similar difficulties in using these against their owners,” he told The Times.

But it’s also reassuring, he added, “because the adoption of these strong standards is a result of companies acknowledging that law enforcement and other state agencies are overreaching in their access to customer data,” including federal and local security and law enforcement groups.

“Legal protections have simply not kept up with the people’s privacy expectations, and the adoption of these strong standards is an encouraging sign that companies are responding accordingly,” he said. “The reality is that, while this may close off one avenue of investigation to state agencies, these agencies now have access to more information with fewer legal restrictions than at any time in recent history.”

 

Quote

Our relationship with Facebook, Google and Amazon isn’t symmetrical. We have no power to define the relationship and have zero say in how things work. If this is how commercial companies treat humanity, what can we expect from governments that are increasingly normative in what they expect from their citizens? Our governments have been taken hostage by the same logic of productivity that commercial companies use. With the inescapable number of cameras and other sensors in the public space they will soon have the means to enforce absolute compliance. I am therefore not a strong believer in the ‘sousveillance’ and ‘coveillance’ discourse. I think we need to solve this problem in another way.